28th June 1997
Their trek in the Valley had ended in a tragedy. And two years later, they are still wandering along the Indo-Pak border searching for clues on how militancy in Kashmir had wrecked their lives. Some leads have come in. But those are, obviously, not enough.
In Islamabad and Lahore, the hapless wives of four Western hostages abducted from Pahalgam, say it was none other than former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto who arranged their meetings with the top leadership of the Harkat-ul-Ansar (HUA), believed to be the parent body of Al-Faran, the group which had abducted their husbands on July 5, 1995.
The tears of these women have dried up and today, Jane Shelly, wife of American hostage Donald Hutchings and Julie Mangam, the wife of British hostage Keith Mangam, talk candidly about the intelligence inputs they have on the longest-running hostage crisis of the sub-continent.
They have visited Pakistan four times and admit that it was Pakistani intelligence officials, belonging to the ISI, who accompanied them for meetings with HUA and Jamat-e-Islami leaders.
"These men never admitted the HUA was behind the kidnapping," says Jane Shelly, who along with Julie and Birgit Hasert, sister of German hostage Dirk Hasert, stopped over in New Delhi before proceeding for Srinagar. "They were on the defensive. But they also promised they will issue appeals to the Al-Faran and try and get our husbands released."
Among the leaders they met in Pakistan are Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Maulana Farooq Kashmiri, seniormost HUA leaders who, India has always maintained are, residing in Pakistan. Qazi Hussain, a senior JEI leader was also introduced to them by the ISI.
Other meetings were fixed with the aged father of Mansur Azhar, the HUA militant who is presently in jail in India and to release whom, in the first place, the hostages had been picked up.
The two Maulanas have, incidentally, been named in the confessional statement of another HUA militant Nasir Mehmood, who was arrested by the Indian security forces in April 1996 and whose narration of events leading to hostages being killed, remains the most authoritative so far.
At one point in the 120-page report, Nasir confessed that Fazlur Rehman and Farooq Kashmiri contacted him directly and told him that the ISI was putting pressure to get the hostages released. It was evident from his version that Rehman and Kashmiri were in contact wth the Al-Faran as well as the chief hostage-keeper, Abdul Hamid Turki.
The confession does not come easily, but the women now admit that Nasir's account seems convincing. "His version seems plausible," is what Julie Mangam says dejectedly. "We are still to come to terms with what he has said. But, unfortunately, some of it does make sense."
As the hostage crisis enters its third year, the distressed wives will be making yet another brave bid to unravel the truth.
In the early months of the crisis, they recall, information kept filtering in about their spouses being "sighted" by the locals. None of the sightings could be confirmed. From end-1995 onwards, news of the hostages was reduced to a trickle.
Now, they say, only bad news is coming in. During the past six weeks, two arrested HUA militants have corroborated the version of Nasir and said the Al-Faran had, indeed, done away with their captives.
So, the women are off to Srinagar and then Islamabad again to compare and contrast the confessions of Nasir Mehmood with those of Abdul Matin and Nasir Ahmad Najar. Matin was arrested by the Border Security Force (BSF) last month. Like Nasir, he admitted that the hostages had been eliminated in December 1995 after Abdul Hamid Turki was killed.
Najar's account is more morbid. According to him, the hostages were shot at a point-blank range by the Al-Faran inside a cave in January 1996. The mouth of the cave had been sealed with stones and the bodies remained inside the cave. Besides the discrepancy in dates (Nasir had said the hostages were killed on December 13, 1995), other portions of Najar's narration match the earlier account.
Other complications have now been added to the highly-confusing picture of what really happened to the hostages. Earlier this year, the US government had announced a whopping $two million reward for information on the hostages, and the arrest of Matin and Nasir precipitated another round of body-searches in the Kokarnag area, where the bodies are said to have been buried.
And some enthusiastic reward-seekers are said to have dug up the grave of an old woman who had been buried in the area about 20 days ago.
This obviously exacerbated tensions over the hostage issue. As Jane puts it, "What happened in Kokarnag is a near-sacrilege. We are not here to create trouble for anyone. We only want our own problem solved. Someone, somewhere has the answers and we are determined to get them."
On their last visit to Kashmir, the women were permitted to meet Nasir and discuss his confessional statement. But, during their current visit, they have been advised ("by US officials") not to meet Najar or Matin.
"We have been told that if the case goes into prosecution, our meeting the incarcerated HUA leaders person to person might cause complications," says Julie, who appears as determined as she was two years ago to find her missing partner.